»I wouldn’t be surprised if poetry – poetry in the broadest sense, in the sense of a world filled with metaphor, rhyme, and recurring patterns, shapes, and designs – is how the world works. The world isn’t logical; it’s a song.«David Byrne
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.
July 26th to 30th, Split – Stari Grad – Sućuraj: The 6th edition of the Tam Tam Festival
When you check in on your Facebook at the Split Gates, all that shows up on your post is a magenta buoy on a 50-percent cyan surface. The digital big blue and the endlessly connected ocean. In opposition to the reduced virtual landscape stands the small strait between the islands of Šolta and Brač, filled with the spontaneous waves of yachting tourists and sailors sent to us, the tired passengers of the Marko Polo ferry, a trusted old journeyman working the route from Split to Stari Grad on the isle of Hvar. Our ferry ride was an occasion marked mostly by sunbathing and refraining from spending our spare coins on overly expensive, but much needed drinks.
We tried to make the most of the shade hanging over the pretty costal road from Stari Grad to Jelsa via Vrboska. At least as far as real estate is concerned, it is hard not to notice an air of luxury, and yet I still was not sure that this was really where I would like to have a house. A touch of wilderness was lacking, but we soon found it once we stepped away from Jelsa and rolled into the deeper inner parts of the island, a rugged garden resisting any analysis, open to the observer like a fold-out book of cardboard landscapes. Merely seeing all of it wasn’t enough; we needed to touch it and smell it, feel it under our fingers and noses, make sure it really existed. Still, the island of Brač and Mount Biokovo to our left and fields of lavender to our right were proof enough of the solid substance of our experience. In the village of Poljice, a chatty old grandpa waved to us from the veranda of his tavern. His name: Ivo Lučić.
»In the village of Poljice, a chatty old grandpa waved to us from the veranda of his tavern. His name: Ivo Lučić. It turned out that, in addition to being a serially award-winning olive grower, his song won the 1971 Hit of the year festival in Sarajevo, a competition in which an icon like Arsen Dedić only managed to place third. His song runs on a loop on an old stereo, ringing out across a tavern filled to the brim with tools and weapons.«
It turned out that, in addition to being a serially award-winning olive grower, his song won the 1971 Hit of the year festival in Sarajevo, a competition in which an icon like Arsen Dedić only managed to place third. His song runs on a loop on an old stereo, ringing out across a tavern filled to the brim with tools and weapons. Hanging on a wall, the ubiquitous calendar with scantily clad girls dated back to a couple of years ago, maybe even older, although the girls would remain eternally young. Just like grandpa Ivo, hopefully. Unlike singer Mišo Kovač, who used to be Ivo’s friend back in the seventies, a Split-Šibenik connection of sorts. He used to say: “You know, kiddo, had I sung that song you did in Sarajevo, we would have sold half a million records…” The CDs are not selling all that well, but the olive oil and wine are going like crazy, grandpa Ivo boasted.
The small villages along the old Hvar road have a certain air of lethargy shared with all those small Mexican villages where Tex Willler and Kit Carson start each of their adventures. I would not dare to assume that the two of us looked anything like those legends from that strange Italian interpretation of the Wild West, but it did seem that our arrivals in the villages of Zastražišće, Gdinj or Bogomolje represented a slight disturbance in the everyday life of their inhabitants. Of course, it was nothing dramatic. At best, a couple of elderly villagers, or even younger folks, would barely lift their gaze from their midday beer in front of their corner shop. I imagined that, had we not passed, they would have remained huddled over it until nightfall. I was probably wrong.
For such small villages, Zastražišće and Bogomolje have quite impressive Partisan monuments. Whether their size had anything to do with the number of villagers who had died in the War, I couldn’t tell. I assumed that their suffering earned them the right to have their names commemorated, forever basking in the constant Hvar sunshine. It was clear that the monuments were well-maintained and that the villagers were generally proud of their anti-fascist tradition, as is the fact with most Dalmatian islands. In the deep canyons of the names of the fallen partisan soldiers, insects found shelter from the blistering sun. Their brief visits to the islands were a healthy counterpart to the slow march of infinity. We rolled on, speeding up only slightly.
As soon as we arrived in Sućuraj, we found out that an older Polish tourist had just passed away on the beach. His heart stopped while he was swimming. All things considered, it was a nice way to go. If we had any mercy in us, we would have left him to sleep forever in the sea. Interestingly enough, his death near our camp did not disturb our little community; rather, it created an air of tranquility. It was as if something that had followed us on our journey had broken off as soon as we came to Sućuraj and made way for expected, familiar pleasures. But many new things were ahead of us as well.
The second part of Sućuraj’s name means Eden – and it is no coincidence. Our small community opted to visit this time for the second summer in a row, mostly because of the Tam Tam music festival, held on the last weekend of July, when throngs of passionate visitors descend on Sućuraj, mostly from former Yugoslavian countries. Serbian license plates are met with no suspicion here, quite the contrary – Belgrade’s Repetitor play the festival every year (this year marked its sixth edition), as they also spend their summer holidays here. Guests start to sway in the rhythm of the local vibes as soon as they have the morning’s first coffee in Pirate’s port, a favorite sanctuary for the festival’s early birds who wish to get some time alone with their newspaper before the day’s hustle and bustle takes over the always lively campground. This is equally true for guests and locals, for regular visitors and performers. It sounds like such a cliché when written down out loud, but Tam Tam is a festival where the differences between performers and their audiences, whoever they might be, completely fade away, and there is a definite feeling that the entire towns lives and breathes with the festival, as if it had sprung into existence naturally, on its own. Seeing how the festival is aimed exclusively at regional bands, and is very affordable on top of that, it could be said that it has gradually become the key event of its type for the whole domestic music scene. It can be felt in the hospitality of the locals and their organizational skills, but also in the enthusiasm and hands-on attitude of the festival’s visitors, many of whom, soon after arriving, ended up volunteering at the festival and instantly becoming part of its inner circle. I felt that even those who hadn’t yet done so would eventually end up doing the same thing.
That is just the magic of Tam Tam.
»In the deep canyons of the names of the fallen partisan soldiers, insects found shelter from the blistering sun. Their brief visits to the islands were a healthy counterpart to the slow march of infinity.«
July 31st – August 3rd, Sućuraj―Jelsa―Stari Grad―Hvar
Hrvoje decided to stay another day (and night!) in Sućuraj, and then travel to Jelsa and stay there in the Milna camp for a week or so, before taking a ship to Ancona and cycling through Italy, all the way north to Venice and its unmissable Biennnale. The Tam Tam festival ended on Sunday afternoon by an acoustic performance by Tena Rak in the camp, as the campers finished off the last supplies of alcohol from their tents. Mrđenović arrived on the evening ferry from Drvenik, returning from the coast where he had photographed the Adriatic Highway for his new series, and brought a couple of bottles of homemade brandy, but this particular evening I wasn’t up for playing that game seriously. I needed to rest for the next leg of my journey, a slightly longer one since I needed to cross the entirety of Hvar this time instead of merely two thirds, as well as climb up and down a relatively steep hill.
The bones of an old hotel complex – rusted iron beams packed with coarse concrete tissue – suddenly emerged from the forest on the southern outskirts of Jelsa like some extinct prehistoric mammal: in other words, both forceful and timid at the same time. I stopped to take stock of the scene and admire it for a while. It was only a couple of months later that my friend Ploc told me that the place had hosted one of the first trance parties in Croatia back in the nineties, and that he happened to find himself there as a fifteen-year old, on one of his first cycling trips to the seaside. Now there was nothing there except for a couple of young families and retirees who hadn’t woken up early enough to find some shade for themselves on the beach. This space and its cold air of unrefined socialist concrete was never much of an attraction to the average tourist. Accidentally or on purpose, Jelsa, in its appearance, still had an old-school patina of Yugoslav tourism, despite several trendy restaurants and classic cocktail bars amounting more to a failed attempt at mimicking glamour than any true ostentatious expression of it. So, future young nomads might as well wait for another mastodon hotel to go bust so they can fill it with their heavy rhythms and radio-friendly melodies.
»Accidentally or on purpose, Jelsa, in its appearance, still had an old-school patina of Yugoslav tourism, despite several trendy restaurants and classic cocktail bars amounting more to a failed attempt at mimicking glamour than any true ostentatious expression of it.«
The slow road from Stari Grad to the town of Hvar took me across a mountain instead of through it, right past the Sun itself, only slightly beneath it: at the mountain’s peak, with its splendid view of the delightfully irregular village of Velo Grablje, I could not even hold the Sun in the palm of my hand: it slipped through my fingers and my spokes and spilled over the grooves of the idle sea, lazily waiting to embrace it. Since I had not ridden my bicycle for three or four days due to partying hard at the Festival, I lost my breath during the climb, and the peak of the mountain, except for being the favorite haunt of the early August sun, also served as a kiosk for an elderly man selling his herbal incense and rakija. I think you can guess what he poured into my empty water bottle!
In the town of Hvar I was greeted by a part of my chosen family – sisters-in-law Ana and Biba, the latter’s partner Šime, their son Pave, and several more members of the local Šoša clan. We decided to spend one of the three nights diving deep into the hectic nightlife of Hvar, filled with the buzz of insects from all corners of the Earth, as we became part of their endless swarm. In summer, during the daytime, Hvar can seem crowded, yet relaxed, since one can only spend a couple of hours drinking coffee in the town center before the lack of stimuli sets in. However, in the nighttime, all of us insects are instinctively drawn to the light, and its brightest sources are located deep underground. Anyone willing to let themselves go and give in to their intense whirl will definitely be able to find the sort of experience they yearn for during the rest of the year, when the grid they are stuck in denies them the space to express the id that is nonetheless constantly at their side. I found it fun to observe, almost like a nature documentary on TV, but it would be a lie to say that this completely instinctual atmosphere didn’t agree with me. However, on the next night, my final one in Hvar, I treated myself to a solitary walk through the upper layers of the town, in a bid to find some streets unmarred by the town’s general hectic rush and incessant commercial pomp. As it turns out, there were some to be found. Behind the high corners, the darkness lay in wait, like an old exhibitionist just waiting to show me his charms…
August 3rd to 7th, Vis / Komiža
The first summer holiday of my life took place on the island of Vis in 1988 – with my parents, of course. Since then, we have kept a small series of analog photographs which indirectly show the dying breaths of an age, forever lost to history just like all others. However, coming back to Vis for the first time in almost thirty years and judging by the photographs we had saved, I could only conclude that many of the things I saw in those photos were left almost untouched, especially in Komiža, which was my final destination on the island. But to get there I had to first cross the island, which I decided to do in a straight line across the hills instead of going around through the villages of Podselje, Podšpilje and Podhumlje, which later turned out to be a bad call. Trying to climb up a hill at the height of August heat in an unusually hot summer, I experienced for the first time on my cycling trip the feeling that something bad might happen to me if I pushed on. I rode my bike in the sweltering heat because the small tourist boat from Hvar to Vis arrived late, and I didn’t feel like waiting for the evening for the ground to cool a bit, because I had friends waiting for me in Komiža. Therefore, there was no other option than to dismount by bike and push it along. That was the moment when I learned that I could be rational on my travels and that I didn’t need to press on at any cost, in spite of the weather conditions; something which I regularly used to do. When I finally arrived in Komiža, Niko, Petra and Andro were already waiting for me with cold beers in Brane’s bar; in the background, Ploc was furiously mashing the buttons on a pinball machine. The merciless Sun had seared the stones of the buildings of the old island town, the temperature was unbearable, and there was nothing else to do but take shelter in one of the bar’s compartments and sip our drinks until the sky took mercy on us.
»The first summer holiday of my life took place on the island of Vis in 1988 – with my parents, of course. Since then, we have kept a small series of analog photographs which indirectly show the dying breaths of an age, forever lost to history just like all others.«
You could say that three Komižas exist at the same time: the northern, middle and southern side. They are not determined only by geography, but also by the different character of the three informal parts of the town. Southern Komiža has the smallest population and is perhaps the most rural, with the highest number of detached houses surrounded by fields of dry stone walls, brush and olive crops; this is also the part of town where the Kamenice beach is located, underneath a forested hillside cape. This has been a popular location for campers of all ages for years now, but sadly, the beach has in recent years been marred by a loud disco club whose underwater and above-water lighting brings “world-class” pollution to the entire bay; no-one seems to care. For me, this was reason enough to spend as little time as possible in the camp; in fact, I only slept there, barring the couple of hasty trips back to Kamenica at sunset, to watch the Sun disappear beyond the horizon and the islet of Biševo… That image alone was worth the pain of an entire hour of boring electronic music and invasive, inappropriate artificial lights.
The center of Komiža is perhaps the most populous – all the well-off taverns and restaurants are huddled in its port, and all the best bars are located around the small town square at the end of the pier, with Brane’s bar front and center. The food is good here, the mingling is even better, and the numerous local celebrations and fisherman’s feasts have embraced the opportunities offered by unbridled tourism – for better or worse. The most interesting feature of this section of Komiža is the watchtower overlooking a small agora, which is nowadays both where the town’s elder council meets and where the children start their daily games, chasing dogs and cats all around the neighborhood. Additionally, the tower holds a vital secret for all adventurers, whether they arrived by boat, bike or board – a communal public restroom.
Northern Komiža, it turned out, was the slowest and shyest part of town to open up to the footsteps and touches of walkers and observers. As soon as one enters the first alley behind Brane’s bar and walks ten meters into the neighborhood, the bustle of the town almost fades away, and larger groups of people can only be found on the verandas of the remaining few tavernas before you reach the edge of town, especially at night. It is not much different during daytime, at least until you reach the mammoth-sized Biševo Hotel and the wide pebbly town beach right in front of it. On my fifteen-minute walk from there to the town center, I had an unusual urge to peek through all the unlocked doors and open courtyards, hoping to get an insider’s look into the everyday rituals of these islanders, trying not to jump them or surprise them, but to appear so inconsequential that they wouldn’t notice me as they gathered for late summer dinner, and I could sit right down at their table. After I had my fill of watching them enjoy their light summer meals, I would crawl under their benches, looking for their cats so I could crawl up their backsides, so that they could never get rid of me, just like an annoying but well-intentioned ghost haunting their home. But none of that happened, because the scorching heat was so intense that everyone hid so deep into their thick stone houses that I couldn’t find anyone…
August 5th, Biševo―Komiža
On Homeland Thanksgiving day, a national holiday more commonly called Victory Day or Day of the Storm, we decided to indulge in a one-day outing on Biševo, the most remote inhabited island in Croatian Adriatic waters. We figured we would be able to hide there from the patriotic frenzy that, on that date, took over all corners of our motherland, even the Partisan enclave of Komiža. To our satisfaction, as soon as Ejla, Tom, Niko, Andro and I stepped off the small passenger ferry early in the morning, we found out that we had been right. The boat let us off in the Mezoporat bay and carried the rest of the passengers to the Blue Cave tourist hotspot, while we were left standing in the increasingly harsh sun, unsure of which way to go, but ready to walk the entire length of the island, if need be. Heading towards its peak, where the nearly abandoned village is located, we relaxed only after repeatedly passing by a gentleman who rode around on his motorcycle, wearing only underpants, flip-flops and sunglasses (no straw hat!), casually humming songs and chewing flowers. I couldn’t manage to take a good picture of him – although slow, he was elusive. My urge to stockpile photos had to be satisfied by taking pictures of decently preserved village schools and churches, the persistent clicking of my phone taking on a masturbatory quality.
Throughout the year, Biševo has a population of a single inhabitant. That person, they told us in Porat bay, is the grill-master for two local restaurants, facing each other across the bay. In wintertime he is said to walk the island all on his own, talking to ghosts. They say he learned their language after he broke up with his girlfriend, a Slovenian girl he dated a couple of years back. His head shaven and his face furrowed, rushing from grill to grill, he looked coarse enough that we didn’t dare approach him and meet him.
The squeals of the children and the noise of the adults rang out across the bay. The families had mostly arrived there on yachts and sailboats, but there were some more modest tourists who had come here for an excursion, like us, by the ferry from Komiža. Although the place was crawling with people, the island paid them no mind. By night it is almost always completely alone, with barely a couple of strollers or sleepers who find it difficult to step away from its magical, ritual everyday life, revealed through the careful repetition of routine daily activities. As is the case with most small and tiny islands, the people who truly love Biševo do nothing carelessly or needlessly. The stages of every day have been set in stone for centuries, just like the warm dry rock walls; new additions are incorporated very slowly, just like new rock on top of the wall. This makes these islands very conducive to observing life on a microscopic level. Except for my very early childhood, I never felt the fear of anything while on an island. That adolescent phase of separation from the family nest turns that original, primordial fear of the woods and darkness into an object of dark desire for a man-child. That is as it should be, and Biševo knows it well. That is why it frightens its remaining inhabitants only when necessary, and comforts them in times of need.
Stjepan is one of the thirty-odd people who are registered as residents of Biševo, but actually live in Komiža, and sometimes even in more distant towns. During the summer, he and his girlfriend Maja spend every weekend in his old island house, often taking their friends with them. We met them in the bay, and after our swim he graciously invited us over to his house, whose interior looked like the lower decks of some ancient ship. There was nothing strange or unusual about this – islanders are even happier than most when strangers fall in love with their homeland, just like highlanders. Maybe it is because their lives are so stripped down, so devoid of anything we would consider extraordinary, and yet infused with so many things that are to be found nowhere else, at least not in such a specific and pure form…
»Fishermen’s nets, wicker baskets and ancient photographs framed in gilded wooden frames were hung all over the walls of the house.«
Fishermen’s nets, wicker baskets and ancient photographs framed in gilded wooden frames were hung all over the walls of the house. In any other place, all of these things would have looked like interior design that was trying too hard; here, however, they looked ageless and authentic. The ground floor was dominated by large stone cisterns for olive oil, dug deep into the ground, whose capped topsides were padded with pillows and used as couches. We prepared a copious, invigorating meal for everyone, after which I lay down on the surprisingly comfy stone couch and fell asleep like a log.
The slowing rumbling of the ship’s engine meant that we were approaching Komiža. The Sun was setting and the Victory Day celebrations were already in full swing. During our boat ride I dozed off once again, and my reverie was only broken by the sound of Dalmatian tunes arranged for a tambouritza orchestra. The horror! After we managed to make our way through the crowd standing in line for brudet fish stew and deep-fried calamari, we realized that a part of campers, mostly Serbian nationals who traditionally spend their holidays here, had found sanctuary in Rade’s tavern. His rakijas were the best in Komiža. We opted for plum rakija, then fig rakija, then quince rakija, as one of the girls took to the guitar to play Van Morrison long into the night…
My gaze wandered off to the nearby church of Our Lady of Pirates. Her stone façade glittered in the light of the recently risen full moon, and all the light reflected off it found a home on the peaceful surface of the sea. I imagined the Lady’s gates opening as pirates, armed only with grim stares, set sail in boats covered in palm leaves. I was certain that they appeared only rarely, in nights such as this one, otherwise choosing to remain hidden from these creatures who see travelling not as a calling but as a commodity.
It was time for me to move on.–
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.