I left Split in such low moods that even a last ricotta fig ice cream from Gelateria Emiliana – yes ricotta fig, imagine – the best gelato I’ve ever eaten really, did not even raise my spirits up. There was one more thing I wanted to do in Split. On my way out of the city, I went to the post office to send a few things, notably the original, padded saddle from my bike, which I had replaced by a Brooks leather saddle in Zurich and fetched in my bags since.
Peeling like an onion
Brooks advertises a break-in period for their saddles of, I think, 300 km. After 1500 km and two Alpine passes, mine felt barely softer as when I bought it. But since I had reached the Adriatic coast, I was bathing five or seven times a day, after which I would get on the bike dripping seawater with only my mini-towel, the one I nearly lost on Pag Island, as a saddle protection. With this bad saltwater treatment, my saddle became a patchwork of brown and amber tints, but I could feel that it finally began to change shape. Together with the old saddle, I packed one synthetic t-shirt, and my spare pair of sunglasses.
I also wanted to send the laptop battery I had replaced in Zurich, but this was not possible. The post office employee treated me like a pig, refusing to explain where I could recycle the battery, and forcing me to buy an extra stamp when I realized I had forgotten to include a postcard in my package. I apologized for being another stupid tourist, and left Split angry, which I made it clear to the staff, and later felt ashamed of it. This reminded of a similar experience in Japan, perhaps the only time I openly angered at someone in one year of living in Japan. Post office employees are just unlucky with me.
I cycled fast, sweating out my water reserves in the uphills, knowing this would end with a headache. I think I rarely get angry, at least for a French. But in Croatia, motorized traffic, being treated like a tourist, some other tourists behaving like colons, overpriced campsites, capitalized nature sites such as Telašćica Bay and Krka National Park, and above all myself; all these things made me angry. After a couple of hard uphills, I thought I had an explanation for what happened to me. After two months of cycling, I thought, my ego had begun to peel off, like an onion, revealing softer and softer layers to the outside world.
As many other academics I know, I have a strong ego. I used to take my work seriously, polish it to the finer details, and be proud of it when it was published or showcased. I think this is my education as a western (French) man and as a scientist. This, I am convinced, and the predominance of the English language, is why we western men excel in academia. Surfing on the wave is the English-speaking world, champion in individualism and stunning other scientists with presentation skills they can only dream of. In the troughs are the Asian Ph.D students, uneasy at public talk and surprising the West with their large working teams.
Six month after leaving academia, and eight month into a year that had brought a good deal of unhappy surprises, I had already given up a fair amount of things. But I still thought of my ex-job as an important one, and despite loosing it, I still felt some remorse or perhaps even shame that I was not, as scientists normally do, hard-working for free towards finding a new position. But cycling along the Croatian coast and especially visiting Krka National Park had killed that. I just had to look around to understand that most people were not really interested in the future of our planet or that of their children. Most people just wanted to drive their car to yet unspoiled beaches and eat hamburgers. I just had to look past my own self and convictions to understand that my ex-job was no more important than that of a car maker, a gelato merchant or a sexist sunscreen ads designer. One peel off the onion.
And when I stupidly broke my phone in Krka, I regretted that I could no longer record my tour itinerary as I had done the last two months. As if cycling in my phone was more important than the real thing. Another peel gone. Juicy soft angry materials inside. These were painful awakenings. But at the same time, I became conscious that I was not yet rid of my ego. There would be more, bigger things to give up down the road. There were still several layers on the onion.
I was still mentally chewing on my onion peels and cycling fast on the seafront of Dugi Rat, when there was suddenly a shout from the seaside : “Julieeen!”. There could not be many people to shout out my name on the Croatian coast. Time to turn around in the heavy traffic, and Sara, the musician from Žen I’d met in Rab, was walking out of the water. We had loosely agreed to meet around Omiš during the week. It is incredible how she managed to spot me from the water. Sara was busy with her family that afternoon, but invited me to join a party by the river in the evening, where I could also pitch my tent. So I cycled the last few kilometres to Omiš, a beautiful town squeezed between the Adriatic Sea and the steep entrance to the Cetina River gorge, and spent my afternoon there.
I met Sara again in late-afternoon. She had noticed I was introspective, and thought it would be best to start with a “briefing” beer. We talked about experiencing earthquakes, in Sapporo in 2018 for me, more recently in Zagreb for Sara, when the ground shook in the middle of the coronavirus crisis. Then, she told me exactly where we were going, explained that to meet her friends we would need to cross the river, and pointed all the places where I could pitch my tent. For a while I thought Sara could be an excellent tour guide for Japanese tourists. Except that, when we had carried our bikes and all my bags across the river, I was stunned to discover, in the middle of the woods, a two-metre wide screen and a beamer playing live football in front of a party loudly cheering for Romania because it played against Zagreb, and Zagreb is the big evil when you live anywhere near Split. All that fetched over and powered by the Cetina River. Sara’s friends had cooked an amazing chicken stew in an iron pot that must have weighted 5 kg. I ate as much social life as I could. We stayed up late and had wine from Sara’s family.
Sara ended up setting up her hammock by the river and could help me carry back my bags in the morning. I was incredibly grateful for the evening. My social batteries were replenished, and I felt I could leave Croatia with a more positive image than that of the impersonal tourism industry. After a morning bath in the Cetina River, guaranteed to keep me cool for a few hours, I began to cycle up the valley. The road took a few switchbacks up to villages in the hills. In one of the turns, I was stunned to discover a spring, the first I saw in Croatia. In this landscape, it was a blessing. I filled up all my bottles, and sprayed water over my entire body. The road plunged back to the river, then went up to a little pass and tipped back to the Adriatic Sea side.
There was a long downhill and I was back on the busy beaches. Suddenly I realized that my towel was missing. After nearly 3000 km I had finally lost something. I had no idea where I lost it, thought it probably had fallen off the bike while drying on my panniers the previous day. Makarska felt little more than a long beachside resort stretching on the steep slopes between the Adriatic Sea and the Biovoko Mountain Range. I tried to avoid the ups-and-downs of the main road, but sometimes ended up cycling very slowly or even pushing my bike on narrow coastal paths. I slept on a tiny beach between Drvenik and Zaostrog, which was not really wild, but I remembered how Sara and Eva seemed to camp just about anywhere here.
Herzegovina and Dubrovnik
The next day I woke early and biked 102 km, my longest day since leaving Austria in late July. I cycled across the Neretva River Delta, where the landscape turned green and flat. With its roadside fruit stalls and karstic mounds popping out of the plain, the delta reminded me of parts of Vietnam where I had been. The delta was one of the few places of the Croatian coast that had more than tourism to it. There were industries, agriculture and surprisingly quiet sand beaches.
An unpleasant uphill and a couple of dangerous truckers later, I was cycling in my eleventh country, Bosnia and Herzegovina. The Neum land strip has a complex history, dating back to 1699 when it was sold by the Republic of Ragusa (Dubrovnik) to the Ottoman Empire to act as a buffer against the Venetian Republic. More than three centuries later, the Ottoman port has been replaced by Bosnia and Herzegovina’s only seaside resort, its unpractical steep slopes packed with giant luxury hotels. Neum felt like a caricaturist demonstration of geopolitics winning over common sense, a most impractical place for a Bosnian port, at the same time seeing the construction of a giant bridge across the bay to reconnect bits of Croatia, and Europe, on either side.
Cycling across the land strip is considered as a transit, and thus border crossings were smooth despite the ongoing restrictions. Traffic was dense, trucks horning in my back in a way that seemed to say: “get out of my way or I’ll do it for you”. Soon all the hotels said goodbye with their individual roadside billboards, there was a European Union sign and I was back into Croatia. After a few minutes of queuing among the car exhaust gases, the guard did not even look at my ID and instead said something monosyllabic which must have been the contraction for “you don’t even have a car so who cares which side of the border you’re on”?
I slept in a nice little camping in the quiet harbour of Saldo. I was drained by the long day of cycling, not only physically but also, and especially, emotionally, and mentally, from the multiple adrenaline rushes and the constant looking in my tiny rear-view mirror. I rewarded myself with a delicious, creamy vegetarian risotto. After Saldo, there were only 30 km left to Dubrovnik. So for the next day I decided to ride a minor road going through the hills. The road climbed to 450 m above sea level, and some sections were steep, but this was indubitably more agreeable than paying constant attention to incoming traffic. I virtually had the road to myself, cycled through quiet hillside villages and was rewarded with incredibly tasty figs and a beautiful panorama on the Adriatic Sea.
I stayed two nights in Dubrovnik. I was welcomed to my room by a woman in her seventies who spoke no foreign languages but insisted to carry my panniers up the stairs, and later offered to machine-wash my clothes. We had a gestural conversation that went something like this. “Pfiou, thanks for carrying my bag. It’s really hot today! – Yeah, after all the cycling I’m sure you’d be up for a little shot. – Ah, yes, drinking water is important. You should drink water. – So is that a yes? – Huh? [Woman goes to pick her secret bottle and pour two glasses] – Hey, it’s good stuff, drink it. – Oh, it smells like… – Hop, I’m done. – Some kind of fruit maybe?” Before collapsing on my bed I could still figure out it that it was a home-made peach liquor.
Dubrovnik was my last stop in Croatia and felt like an apotheosis ending to the long touristic coastline of Dalmatia. On the one hand, it was easily the most impressive town I visited in Croatia. The picturesque old town is built in a topographic saddle between steep cliffs and the mountainside, enhanced by the impressively high and incredibly well-preserved city walls, which allowed the city to rule itself as a free state for five centuries. On the other hand, I felt the city had less soul than any other I had seen. The restaurant prices were well above anything else I had experienced in Croatia, closer to those of Switzerland than the rest of the Balkans, and two or three times those in coastal towns I had cycled through two days before. I did not pay for any of the touristic sights. Walking the city walls alone costed 200 kn (27 €).
My Croatian August was finally coming to an end. In a way, the southern tip of Croatia had been my cycling goal for more than a month. I was going to cycle past that goal, and to step into more foreign territory. The coronavirus pandemic was still on, and I was a little anxious to leave the borders of the European Union, knowing that reentry may be difficult as new cases were on the rise across the continent. At the same time, I was happy to leave the country, looking forward for new places, cooler September weather, and the end of the peak tourist season.
The route (4 days, 249 km)
- 26/08/20 Split – Omiš 43.2 km
- 27/08/20 Omiš – Zaostrog 69.7 km
- 28/08/20 Zaostrog – Slano 102.2 km
- 29/08/20 Slano – Dubrovnik 34.2 km