»In a meadow full of flowers, you cannot walk through and breathe those smells and see all those colors and remain angry. We have to support the beauty, the poetry, of life.« Jonas Mekas
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 21st to 31st, Silba―Lošinj―Cres―Pula―Zagreb
On that Monday morning the sea was, as they say, as still as oil. The holiday of the Assumption of Mary had passed, the end of August was drawing nearer, and the number of tourists in Zadar was already somewhat dwindling. The traditional Mary’s castling maneuver had taken place. The ferry port of Gaženica was empty bar a couple of dozen people, but the sailors were still nervously rushing around to load the goods onto the ships headed for the islands. On the upper deck of the ferry that would take me to Ist, Premuda, Olib and Silba, some retirees and young girls, probably foreigners, were sunbathing – and barely any young men. I recognized a skinny bald guy, Domagoj, who I hadn’t seen in years. I had no doubt that he was headed for Silba as well, where, as it turned out, he was part of the Silba Environment Art organization, headed by Natasha Kadin, an art curator from Split whom I would soon meet. Silba had not been a part of my original plan but, having seen posters on the streets of Zadar promoting a concert by Ivanka Mazurkijević and Mrle of Let 3 fame that was taking place on the island at the time, I was reminded that all sorts of things were happening over there. All this made me take my bike and board that ferry.
Every time I attempt to explain the irresistible attraction of Silba to people who have never been there, I find myself facing the trap of falling into tourist guide clichés, which are difficult to avoid when the island really is as beautiful as their authors would like you to believe. So I will try to address this in a roundabout way. My first visit to Silba was in the summer of 2008, and the folks I knew there at the time had a tradition: on their first night there, newcomers were always taken to the cemetery, supposedly to have a couple of drinks in a gothic ambiance, but actually to scare the living daylights out of them. It was a kind of initiation. And indeed, on that first night ten years ago, sometime after midnight (if memory serves me well), we left the bar or the beach and headed towards the cemetery, located somewhere roughly in the middle of the island, at its narrowest strip. Silba’s cemetery is nothing like urban cemeteries, or even the ones found on most islands: its surface is littered with numerous headstones that take up almost every inch of every path and field. There are very old tombs there, and some very young ones, but all together they weave a thick web of memory which draws in a traveller as soon as they unwittingly tread on the quiet ground. Although dark and dirty, ancient and proud, the cemetery at night, even during that first visit, never invoked only dread or anxiety; it was more like a sense of mystery, of the existence of something unfathomable and unexplainable. After all, to reach it in the first place, we needed to go on a pilgrimage up a wide road, passing several chapels. As the town was left behind in the distance, the gap in the forest canopy above us became narrower and narrower, and the path between the trees took on the semblance of a cave entrance. All the way back to Plato, via Jesus and Robinson Crusoe, the cave is a powerful symbol in humanity’s subconscious. It was evident that my arrival in Silba was akin to entering the Cave or passing through it, and that this initiation was sorely needed.
»Although dark and dirty, ancient and proud, the cemetery at night, even during that first visit, never invoked only dread or anxiety; it was more like a sense of mystery, of the existence of something unfathomable and unexplainable.«
As it turned out, the concert I wanted to see was taking place the very next evening, in the Žalić ferry port. I had almost forgotten how magnificent the sunsets over Lošinj are – beyond that eternal line that kept reminding me of the border between the lands known to Man and the mysterious land of Waitapu in Joža Horvat’s unforgettable novel. Just as the concert was about to start, the fishermen came back with their nets filled to the brim, and started selling their catch on the pier. At a moment’s notice, the whole village gathered there, and the din of the crowd filled the pier as the day’s last sunlight faded. When the nets were finally empty and the handbags full, the air was flooded by the warm sounds of Mrle’s electronic devices, while Ivanka’s gravelly, melodious voice filled in the remaining spaces between the audience members. For a moment I felt that familiar shiver that overcomes you when you experience something true. It suddenly became colder. I lit a cigarette and asked the ember to warm me. Even though night had already fallen, the sky was still sapphire blue.
It’s not that I didn’t spend any time with people on Silba during the following days, but I did enjoy solitude quite a bit. As my lodgings were in the center of the town, I often revisited the locations that had fascinated me a long time ago, but I discovered some new ones as well. One of those was a small church which I had never known even existed until one day it emerged under a large concrete cross, inviting me in with open doors. There were no sacral objects inside other than the characteristic wooden benches. The long rays of the low sun humbly touched a series of tombstones firmly set into the floor. These were the old tombs of sailors, housed in the church since the 18th century, a time where Silba flourished as an important port in the northern Adriatic, and the most successful local captains could afford to be buried in the town’s sanctuary. I wondered if I could bear the fate of my tomb becoming an important archaeological site, as it happened to so many before me who found immortality in the camera’s lens, instead of beyond the Pearly Gates, whoever might guard them. I was no better than those who thought that learning about funeral rites can bring you any real comfort – I, too, rushed to turn the captains’ obituaries into megabytes.
Every afternoon we visited one of Silba’s hidden bays and beaches. Returning home from Dobra voda, we raced the setting sun, our sure-footed friends guiding our small group through a maze of forest paths. Every now and then, when we got closer to the shore, a ray of moonlight would pierce the night in front of us, almost immutable, as if the phases of the Moon marched more slowly here on Silba. The islanders had the luxury of not being bothered by the passage of Time, which in turn demanded that they honor its everyday whims: if a rainstorm should shut down life on the island for a couple of days, so be it. The next evening, barely any people were swimming in the Ugljenica bay. On the first tree on the edge of the woods, someone had written “light another one and then we’re off” in felt-tip pen. I was ready to smoke a whole carton of cigarettes just to make the moment last longer.
On my first morning in Mali Lošinj, I woke up in Dunja’s studio, which she generously let me use while she was staying in Barcelona. I fell asleep with a huge tome on Adriatic nautical routes on my chest. I had taken the direct ferry line from Silba just so I can sleep over. After drinking the coffee that Dunja’s mother so kindly made for me, I said my goodbyes, sat on my bike and headed out straight towards Osor – or so I thought at the time. However, things would not go that smoothly. In the village of Nerezine on Lošinj I ran into Karla with her husband and children, and she told me that there was some sort of artistic residence in the village of Sv. Jakov, and that Petra, Stipan and Škofić were participating, so I decided to see if I could tag along for a night. It turned out that they had been invited, along with some colleagues, by some enlightened Swiss patrons who bought two houses in Sv. Jakov so they could organize symposiums for both contemporary and classical artists. Stipan was not sure if the hosts would willingly take me in, but just like any time I arrived somewhere by bike, there turned out to be no problems. Of course, I had brought a couple of bottles of great žlahtina wine as my ticket in, but I didn’t want to intrude by joining them for dinner as well. I used this opportunity to take a walk around the small town that beckoned me so persistently. It is not located at the seaside, but in a small valley surrounded by low, forested hills. At night there was no indication that we were on an island, in fact, we might as well have been in the heart of Istria. All the houses were recently renovated or very well-maintained; like a living museum, there were no ruins or any signs of disrepair. There were also no community spaces other than a tavern, a church and a children’s playground in front of it. Not a single human figure could be seen moving under the meager light of the streetlamps, but lights shone in many of the windows in the village’s houses. I wandered aimlessly, in a bid to kill time, endlessly trying to find something I could call the soul of this island, because it had eluded me for so long.
It was getting late – the dull ringing of the church bells told me it could be as late as ten or eleven, but I lost count… Finally, I stumbled onto a road heading outside of the village, once again towards a small cemetery on a steep cliff above a hillside hurtling down towards the coast. A strange smell emanated from the cemetery, probably because of the refuse that no-one had collected for days, so I did not dare come closer. I stopped some two hundred meters away from it, at a spot from which I could clearly see the white crosses poking out of the treetops, at the point where the last streetlamp shone light on the village’s ostentatious last house. It was a large luxury single-story house, neither pretty nor ugly, a study in concrete mediocrity, incongruous among all these buildings that tried to preserve some history. It was shrouded in vegetation which carefully concealed its blandness. Its interior gave the house an air of inevitability. The lights were on. In a spacious, sterile dining room, a young family – mother, father, son and daughter, obviously guests of the unknown owners – were sitting down for late dinner. The walls were covered in images of their pale, emaciated doppelgangers – cheap knock-offs of paintings from Picasso’s blue phase. The contrast was surreal. The guests paid no attention to the characters in the paintings; they were mere passers-by in a house that actually belonged to the men and women in the paintings. I imagined that the ersatz Picasso faces with their sunken eye were happy that they didn’t have to contend with museum visitors or security guards all day. Their only task was to be part of the scenery of Sv. Jakov for a couple of months a year, and were otherwise free to live outside the painter’s rigid frames. The author of the faces from Sv. Jakov was anonymous, and they selflessly imprinted the images with their own lack of importance. Maybe they were the true residents of this place.
While crossing the bridge between Lošinj and Cres and subsequently entering Osor, I could finally clearly feel that I was in a region which, except for the sea itself, had no real close ties to Dalmatia. When your ferry docks in Mali Lošinj, the tame, almost cuddly nature of the isles and islets of southern Croatia (with certain exceptions, such as the island of Pag) can still be recognized in the landscape, the scents, the panoramas of the largest island town in the Adriatic. The small town of Osor, on the other hand, posseses a different vibe, carrying a whiff of continental wilderness, a spirit of the mountains. Although Dalmatia is home to the highest and harshest Croatian mountain, Dinara, but the wilderness of Cres, with its handsome ruggednes in between the land and the sea, almost seems like a runaway sister of Gorski Kotar and Istria on the coast – a family member exiled sometime in the past because she could not be tamed, because she refused to give in completely to humans. Located on a strategic intersection of routes both nautical and traffic, Osor’s fortified visage is almost like a warning for the traveller: this is what you can expect on Cres, solitary villages and towns, built so that they could withstand attacks for centuries, with nothing between them but many kilometers of hard roads, entwined around a life reduced to its sturdiest, most basic elements.
As soon as I left Osor, by the side of the main island road, I was met by the fresh carcass of a doe or hind, setting the tone for that day’s leg of the journey. Her dark eyes with no discernible pupils kept reflecting that moment in which life left those still cracking joints. The road that pushed her along and split her apart had also split her habitat in two. Civilization had gradually cut its fragile path through the island, but occasional encounters with the wilderness were a reminder of their fundamental conflict. It was a deep-rooted opposition, made patently evident here.
Halfway between Osor and the town of Cres, I had a date with the village of Vrana and the nearby Lake Vrana. I got there sometime around three in the afternoon, in the high heat of the summer sun, and the village, with its handful of houses, looked even smaller than I had expected. There were no signs of life there other than the underpants and undershirts drying under one of the windows, on the house closest to the incline that led to the Lake. A far-reaching silence spread all across the land – broken not even by the buzzing of insects, let alone footsteps like mine. And yet again, at the edge of that abyss, filled with endless, hypnotically turquoise water, I could feel a surprisingly strong and committed sense of life. Deep inside, I knew that there was nothing to fear, but, stuck in an everyday rut, moments of such a purified, complete experience of life were relatively few and far between. For the longest time, I could not step away from this moment, but when I finally did, it seems I was destined to stumble into another forgotten cemetery, visited nowadays only by the few descendants of the late villagers of Vrana. Barely a couple of dozen tombs, surrounded by a wide wall, lay scattered around a modest chapel, whose gate was tightly barred.
My spontaneous need to get in was left unfulfilled, because I could not break the rusted lock, so I had to settle for exploring the small photographs on the tombstones, compiling and comparing the last names of the deceased and in doing so building my personal intimate genealogy of Vrana, one that is likely far from the actual truth. Soon it became too hot for such a difficult task, and I started feeling the call of the final destination on my island odyssey – the town of Cres. I stepped on the pedal and soared once again.
Without any disrespect meant, I have to say that Cres is the only island town that I have visited so far that really felt like a small city. Simply put, Cres is a city – albeit a small one – both in appearance and in content. When its bay suddenly emerges from behind the last hill in the way, during a gentle sunset, a strong impression overcomes any weary cyclist, and the dark woodland slopes looming over the houses and towers remind one of the endless interplay of culture and prehistory. Of course, the centuries-long influence of Venetian landowners was very important here, which can be noticed at first sight on the facades of the houses, which are colorful rather than rocky and dour, like on the islands of Southern Dalmatia. Moreover, the past of Cres is systematically nurtured in the present, with detailed explanations of history written out next to the gates of patrician houses and other important buildings, huddled together on a limited stretch of flat land so that they form an irresistible labyrinth of narrow alleys, worthy of the most exotic ancient cities. Although there are definitely some architectural principles and consistent organization of space at work here, it is impossible to find two really similar objects, sacral or profane, just like you cannot find two similar open windows or worn-out roof tiles. Cres truly cares about its institutions, carefully marking those that represented crucial points in the process of the “awakening of the people”, in other words, its organizing and self-determination. Among these, a special significance is awarded to buildings which were important for the mustering of the Partisan resistance against Nazi and Fascist invaders. At the most prominent spot, next to the main city gate, a marble monument has been raised, with words that the islanders would never forget inscribed deep into its surface.
I only spent a single night in Cres, renting the first room I ran across, just next to the entrance to the city’s small shipyard. I decided that I wouldn’t try to meet anyone – I wanted to enjoy the evening on my own and simply look at people without the need to listen to them. I walked all across town, first strolling all along the pier, then making a circle in the inner alleys, and finally, when it was already getting late, stopping on the terrace of the most lavish hotel in Cres, where a man with a guitar was performing Neil Young’s Like a Hurricane. An interesting choice for a late summer evening; I always considered it to be more of an autumn song. The gathered guests gave rhythm to the entire ritual by unobtrusively clapping, seated in a half-circle around the performer, smiles on their faces. Only a woman in a light dress danced in front of him, her eyes closed, not asking anyone to join her in her act – she let herself go to the song. I drank a small beer while the musicians finished his performance; it was more than enough just to watch her measured, balanced motions. Her free movement honored the entire island.
Before I lay down to sleep, I stopped once more in front of the Plavica bar – the most popular youth dive in Cres, as it seemed. Yes, the tourist season was waning, but several groups still wouldn’t give up on the summer. These were mostly foreigners, backpackers from the nearby camp or the children of wealthier parents who filled up the extra hotel rooms, mixed with the local kids who wanted to get the most out of their stay with their grandparents before the inexorable call of the new school year back on the coast. I felt welcome in that sunset of a season. Even though a day of serious cycling stood between me and Pula, this time really the final day of this trip (I had long since decided that I would roll back into Zagreb on a bus, with my bicycle packed away, because of the aforementioned friends’ wedding in September), I felt that, as I was saying goodbye to the island, I was also saying goodbye to the route I had planned for myself since the journey’s beginning. Plenty of things still lay ahead of me: the griffon vultures of Cres, the ferry and the factories, Labin and Raša, Barban and Vodnjan, but those were all places I had already visited, roads I had ridden on, and even though they revealed something new every time, there were no real challenges there for me. Beauty is everywhere, all the time… But I regretted not being able to spend just a few more days on Cres, exploring the local villages, testing my own strength. I liked the solitude, and a return to my everyday rut did not seem real to me. However, it was crucial to go back – a journey without a return would have made no sense – if I travelled all the time, how could I tell if I had changed at all? Ahead of me I could already see the huge billboards just outside of Zagreb, the toll-booths at the end of the highway, Jimi Hendrix’s name written all over the bridge across the Sava, this river that intersected my every day and made me feel like a real traveller even when I was only going to work in the morning. I started hoping that my next voyage would be along its banks: I believe that, in the arms of the Sava and its sisters, I would feel at home even when I was hundreds, or thousands, of kilometers away.
The end (of this road)
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.