»Tourism, human circulation considered as consumption is fundamentally nothing more than the leisure of going to see what has become banal.« Guy Debord
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.
August 7th to 20th, Primošten―Zlarin―Zadar
My return to reality on the coast triggered, at first, a kind of psychological, even cultural shock. Having spent two weeks exclusively on islands, however busy they might have been at this time of year, docking in Split’s ferry harbor pulled me back into a pulsating web of completely different vibes. In stark contrast with the unwritten order and implicit balance of island life, present even in slightly off-kilter communities like Hvar, the Split harbor rang out in a cacophony of various sights and sounds, both wholesome and toxic, merged in unending, immeasurable turmoil. However, if you manage to claw your way through this perpetual traffic jam, especially if you are a cyclist with an overburdened two-wheeled companion, you can still find something worthwhile there, even in broad daylight. For me, it was once again Fife’s stuffed peppers, which once again didn’t disappoint.
I enjoyed them all on my own, watching the folks swarming the terrace of the central restaurant of the Matejuška neighborhood: overdressed foreign tourists trying to taste something special in this crowded city, so their tour guides sent them here; then the locals, some relaxed, some in a huff, depending on how quick the waiters came with their orders; and, finally, visitors from the Far East – numerous, but still fascinating in their role as the only adults on this planet who have managed, in spite of their years, to maintain an air of innocence. Whether their childlike joy of photographing everything that exists is indeed genuine, or just a habit completely misinterpreted by us as their hosts, is something that I could never quite figure out. Asking them would have been pointless. Why spoil one of the world’s few remaining mysteries, here in the one-time summer mansion of a cruel Roman emperor? Still, even the deposed Diocletian seemed less ridiculous than the more recent ruler of this land, worriedly observing his subjects from high above, while leaning on a huge marble block. Why the long face, mr. Tuđman?  Everything is going just as you planned it.
»Of course, no Adriatic island can, sadly, survive without the coast, but the intensity of their ties to land can vary greatly.«
As comfortable I am with these kinds of extremes, I had to head north, towards the Adriatic Highway and its monotonous, depressing kilometers. Since it was already afternoon, I was not sure if I had the required strength of will to cover the needed distance that day, even though I had to get to Primošten, to another music festival – Super Uho. And yet, I made it! The festival itself didn’t hold much interest for me, but I did not want to miss the opportunity to hear the mighty Shellac from Chicago live; New York’s Liars were not to be missed, either. I was running late to the whole event so I never changed from my cycling clothes – I tied my bike to a lamppost at the entrance to the festival and spent the entire evening in cycling shorts – I really didn’t care, although my groin was starting to feel the consequences of this lifestyle. Luckily, Shellac and Liars performed back-to-back, emitting waves of energy proportional to the heat created by the splitting of an atom. Not a single soul was left indifferent – even the shyest festival guests danced like there was no tomorrow. In a certain sense, that was almost true. The musicians managed to condense all the sensations of their aggressive, but alluring music into a moment that threatened to last forever. This is something that happens at the best of parties and concerts – time flows on as long as the music lasts, and both of these categories are simultaneously finite and infinite. We move between them like the only tangible beings that can attempt to fathom them. Sadly, not forever. The body always makes the final judgment, and the body of someone who had ridden his bike for tens of kilometers, just to be there, decided to go to sleep in a small glade next to the beach. My mind, however, went somewhere else.
An island close to the coast is in many ways similar to its distant brothers, but differs from them in certain important elements. It is perhaps hard to explain if you have never encountered such opposites. The difference is not only due to the number of ferry lines to the coast – and thus the island’s general rhythm of movement: of people, animals, goods…No, the difference is deeper and cannot be quantified, but it can be smelled and sensed. Whether you are a traveller or an islander, you can sense that land is not far away, and not just because you can usually see it. These coastal islands belong partially to the sea, and partially to the continent, and that division is what makes them exciting. Although they are full of their inimitable specificities, they are never independent microcosms in the way their distant cousins are, simultaneously yearning for land and mocking it. Of course, no Adriatic island can, sadly, survive without the coast, but the intensity of their ties to land can vary greatly.
Zlarin, in comparison with other Adriatic islands, is not spectacularly beautiful: there are no sandy beaches there, or towering rocks, or truly dense woods, or any really awe-inspiring wilderness. Zlarin is gentle, accessible and tame. However, as these things usually go, its attraction is based on a completely different type of logic than that of display, of picture postcards. It would also be a cliché to say that it is hidden in the character of its inhabitants, but the home island of poet Vesna Parun tends to attract people inclined to spend their idle time creating, which has recently been met with unison approval from the islanders, so interesting things have started to happen there. I managed to land there just as the tourist season was peaking – I spent six days on the island, and we stayed up until dawn all six of them. We would start at the beach, in the port or on the Hotel’s terrace, and ended up in the Fingac, always at the Fingac, in the very center of town where the all-night parties never seemed to bother any of the neighbours.
Still, I found Zlarin to be at its most mysterious at dawn, before the first ferry left for shore, before the early morning’s catch arrived at the fishmonger’s, before the market-ship docked at the main pier to sell fruits and vegetables. That was the quietest half an hour of the day. I would wander the alleys, stopping only when the cobblestones turned into brush; if I met any grandmas wearing black, I would greet them with »God Bless!« or simply nod. My favorite bench was one in front of the old, abandoned elementary school. Creeping vines spread from a high window near the roof of the building, covering the entire facing of the school like a network of blood vessels, slowly turning it into a field where future olives would grow. The house that I set my sights on was number 42, Alfier Street. The well-off elderly lady who was selling it promised to hold on to it until I could afford it. She was in no rush, so she wouldn’t mind waiting for a decade or so.
»I would wander the alleys, stopping only when the cobblestones turned into brush; if I met any grandmas wearing black, I would greet them with »God Bless!« or simply nod.«
I was deep into August already, mentally completely detached from Zagreb, and found it hard to imagine what life was like over there. I never stuck around long enough in any given spot to develop any kind of routine, so, in spite of stopping quite often, my everyday life for the last several weeks amounted mostly to traveling. The constant spinning of wheels in a wandering flurry. Of course, it was pleasant to wake up every morning unbound by any set framework of life, knowing that my route was not really a tourist one and that nothing was really forcing me to go back. I knew that I had a fixed date by which I had to be back in Zagreb – for the wedding of two close friends in September – but since no job would be waiting for me when I got home, and no certainty that my previous life could continue in the same shape or form, I liked to pretend that there would never be a homecoming, and that my bicycle would remain my only ally. My weekend in Zadar, spent in the house of some family friends on Kolovare, served as the final test before my last difficult leg: once again boarding the ferry and crossing the islands of Silba, Lošinj and Cres by bicycle, and then, taking a ferry from the northernmost point of the latter island and landing in Istria. I hadn’t seen Silba in seven years, and I’d never visited Cres or Lošinj at all. Seven years – what a portentous number! This universal magical number was a smoldering invitation to return to an island that had already left quite a mark on me. As it later came to be, this visit would not be an exception.
»I liked to pretend that there would never be a homecoming, and that my bicycle would remain my only ally.«
The evening before my departure I sat in the yard with Vesna and her Grandma, enjoying the view of the canal between Zadar and its nearest islands, Ugljan and Pašman. We sipped some coffee and nibbled on some cookies as we watched the sun set behind Zadar’s famous horizon. It was quickly getting darker, but we never even considered turning on the lights. The only sounds in the darkness were the clinking of the dishes and the three murmuring voices – a middle-aged woman and an elderly one, and a young man whose fears, he liked to believe, were dissolving in the sediment of the coffee, in cutting through the sea’s waves and recording the grooves left in his wake. By listening around myself, I was slowly becoming aware of the times ahead of me, as well as the times I’d already left behind. I had to rise early the next day, so I said goodbye to my hostesses and retreated into my small room with a bunk bed. It had not changed a bit since those gentle years when I used to spend my summers there.–
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.
- Franjo Tudjman was the first president of the Republic of Croatia, in office from 1991 until his death in 1999. His rule is remembered, among other things, for various authoritarian and undemocratic tendencies.