Aspen Times Weekly: Cycling the Dalmatian Islands
It was on the last day of my 10-day cycling trip through the Dalmatian Islands of Croatia when I made the fatal mistake — I, for a moment, considered the “Sag Wagon.” For the hundreds of miles and thousands of vertical before this, I had not once thought to surrender my road bike or my body to the comfort and multitude of snacks hidden inside the VBT support van. Every day I rode through all-weather cycles, from rain to sun, wind to rain and back again and had felt strong. I never outright led the pack, but I had never brought up the rear either, until today.
It was the day after May Day, when cities, towns and villages throughout Europe celebrate spring and for some, like Croatia, worker’s rights, akin to Labor Day. On the island of Hvar, a popular summer destination for the European yachting set, we began May Day with a long climb past lavender and rosemary fields, with sweeping views of the Adriatic, followed by a fast and steep descent along a newly paved, winding road (with not a prairie dog to dodge in sight). We had been in the saddle for only a couple of hours when our small group of 16 rolled into the village of Stari Grad.
We arrived to find a group of local men standing in a small square belting out traditional Croatian songs. One was playing the accordion and bystanders were drinking homemade wine they had brought in jugs covered in plastic wrap. “They sing like that always,” said one of our four guides, Natasha Fiolica. “It doesn’t matter if it’s a holiday, these men sing because they are Croatian and Croatian men love to sing.”
The sharp consonants of the Slavic-based Serbo-Croatian language and wail of the accordion attracted locals as they walked by. Soon there was a crowd, all helping themselves to plastic glasses full of red wine. I stood back and watched, but instead of joining them as my instinct inclined, I took my bike and began to pedal one of the most challenging uphills on the itinerary — just so I could say I rode it all, every last kilometer. But my mind was thinking of those passionate souls singing on the square. So at the apex of the short but intense climb, I turned the road bike around and pointed it downhill over gravel, bumps and potholes in the road. By the time I got back, the crowd was gone. I had missed the moment.
“At VBT bicycling is a tool for discovering the culture,” said my lead guide Vanja Kastelan, a Croatian native who lives on Brac. “With us, it’s not only about the riding.” In the pursuit of the ride, I had lost my focus for why I was there — to see and experience Croatia. I was on a bike, to slow down. I needed to get back into balance. So instead of jumping back on the day’s route, I took a long lunch, had a cold Ožujsko lager, sat in the sun, and ate chocolate cake drizzled with lavender oil. By the time I got back on my bike it had been two hours, and for anyone who has ever come close to a bike and spent two hours at lunch knows, the rest of the afternoon is going to be slow. Really slow.
The Dalmatian Coast of Croatia is everything people tell you it is — beautiful, timeless, rich in heritage. The Adriatic is the color of turquoise and sapphire that eludes logic, and much of Croatian culture is reaped from that sea and the 1,244 islands and islets that dot the long strip of Dalmatian Coast. It is also an architectural treasure. A part of the Venetian province on and off for close to 800 years, the shapes and the materials of these Croatian towns exude a Venetian feel, from the Gothic-arched windows down to the winged lions that are still intact on many buildings and churches. I pondered this Venetian legacy many times as I turned my pedals over and over through quiet stone villages, along harbors and through vineyards. The Venetian heritage also permeates the food and in some ways the attitudes of its people. Croatians were almost always dominated by one culture or another, whether it was the Venetians, Turks, Austrians or, most recently, Yugoslavians.
Croatia fought and won its independence from the former Yugoslavia from 1991 to 1995. According to the locals, it hasn’t been the smoothest of transitions from a socialist to capitalist society. In bigger cities like Split, there are buildings that ring of the drab facades of the former government, and the economy remains unstable; unemployment is high. While Croatia joined the European Union in 2013, it still operates separately and proudly on its own currency, kuna, the benefit of which is mostly celebrated by its people, and for travelers — keeping Croatia a very affordable place to explore. So after 20 years of independence, this small country is still getting to know itself, which makes it a particularly appealing place for travelers because things are slow to change and few desire for things to change at all.
The island of Brac was our first cycling destination. It is an island known for its white limestone quarries that date back to Roman occupation. Almost everything in Brac is constructed of this native stone. It is host to a number of quarries and a world-famous stone mason school, Klesarska Skola, for high-school age students, mostly boys, in the village of Pucisca.
Brac is also very insulated — not just because it is an island, but due to antiquated ownership laws that prevent the sale of homes to anyone not a Croatian citizen or business owner. Additionally, sale of property can only happen when all owners (generations upon generations) of said property are contacted and agree, making it very difficult to sell. There is very little turnover to foreigners. Croatians mostly own Croatia, and they have been unable to unload or redevelop their property for financial gain. That will change one of these days, but for now, Croatia looks and feels as it must have 100 or more years ago.
Cycling in late April on Brac is ideal for road riding. Medieval coastal towns like Postira, where we stayed, are yet to be overrun by European visitors from the mainlands in spring. Konobas – rustic, family-owned restaurants — were just opening their doors for the summer season. The air was cool and humidity-free, and the roads were minimally traveled despite one or two old Renaults buzzing by — all of the things important when riding an entire day. (VBT is considering adding summer tours to their schedule, but beware of heat and crowds on Brac and Hvar in high season.)
Our first full day on this round and rolling island is a series of long uphills, and I pass the time by taking in the spectacular views of the seas, while counting wild asparagus along the road. I took frequent stops to communicate with local sheep herders using wild hand gestures – few here speak English. The farmers tended flocks that roamed through olive and fig groves, naturally pruning grasses and trees. Just about everyone on Brac makes his or her own olive oil on the community press, sheep’s-milk cheese, and their own wine. Isolated from the mainland, there is only local food here and it has never occurred to them to import much of anything, besides water that just made its way via a pipe beneath the Adriatic to the island in the 1950s.
We eat cuttlefish and risotto, roasted lamb knuckles and fresh olives. I stick to beer and the white wines of Croatia, which are becoming more sophisticated and complex, but also enjoyed homemade rakija, a brandy made from walnuts, plums or grapes and served before our meals. Every day the riding is varied, but every day at lunch we find ourselves in another unbearably beautiful coastal village, where fresh fish, garden-grown Swiss chard and anchovies are plentiful.
Which brings me to the last day and that Sag Wagon. VBT is not for those who want and need hardcore riding. It’s for people who like a challenge but also want to experience a place and use the bike as a way to see more of the little things. After a week in Croatia, I had become accustomed to the beautiful routine of lattes and chocolate croissants in the morning, followed by two hours of challenging road riding, then sailing into a village around noon, enjoying lunch, maybe a gelato and then riding as fast and hard as I could until late afternoon when we would return to our hotel, shower and celebrate the day’s ride with octopus in rosemary gnocchi and a glass or two of Pošip. I had stopped at dozens of Catholic churches big and small. I met the village butcher who told us his first love he once chased all the way to Woonsocket, Rhode Island, and stopped at the home of our 24-year-old guide, Mario Gamulin, to wave to his mom from her porch. I navigated the small one-way roads and winding Roman roads that led to towns that appeared to have stopped in time.
On the bike, life slowed down and suddenly 50 miles was as far as I needed to go to see, smell and taste more than I would have ever experienced in a car speeding past all of the little things that make Croatia special.
On the final day, I didn’t ride hard but instead took it slow and tried to take everything in, so much so that for the first time all week, I was tired. The ride ahead of me loomed, but my legs were still sitting at the café in Stari Grad, and taking in the view while picnicking in Jesla. I looked to the pass we were about to tackle, the last of the week, and I waivered.
But Mario, our young guide, a natural storyteller, who had yet to buy biking clothes or riding shoes, spun effortlessly beside me as we moved slowly up the 10 percent grade. He shared his love for his home, telling me about how times in Croatia were hard, but he never considered leaving the place where he grew up, where generations of his family had lived, fished and rooted themselves through wars, independence and recessions. He explained with excitement the origin of Hvar’s local superhero called “Lavender-man,” and how he had “cried like a baby” when he got the job with VBT.
During that ride, I realized it wasn’t just about the goal of miles ridden or sights seen, it was also about the connection with people on the road, about listening to their life experiences while making my own. It was a slow grind that last ascent, but I dug deep and made my way to the summit in Brusje where the VBT van was waiting. I never did see what it looked like inside.