Cycling and visiting cities in Central Dalmatia

Cycling and visiting cities in Central Dalmatia

I had not initially expected to encounter any more familiar faces after Zurich. But part of my recent motivation for cycling so slowly across Croatia was the prospect to meet friends in the Zadar region in mid-August. When Amandine and Loran confirmed that they were on their way, I was thrilled to meet them, thrilled to meet people for whom I would be more than just another tourist in the masses.

Meeting friends in Bibinje

Loran and Amandine had recently moved from Zurich, where we had met, to Marseille. I imagined their move as an amplified, longer-termed version of my experience cycling across the border from Slovenia to Croatia. Amandine is one of the very few persons I know who has managed to sail through the stormy seas of academia without giving up her weekends, relationships and social life, something I am totally incapable of. Her partner Loran is a musician with family roots in the Zadar region, who had just seen the busiest months of the year replaced by a long, compulsory holiday.

Before I even arrived, Amandine and Loran found a little camping for me in Bibinje, which was exactly what I needed. It had trees, grass, and direct access to the sea. Instead of an expensive army of cleaners like I had seen in previous, overpriced Croatian campsites, there were signs that explained how to use a toilet brush in three steps (step one, not in your hair), and that seemed to work very well.

On the evening we met, Amandine asked what I enjoyed and missed the most on the road. I had to think about it for a bit, but the answers came pretty straightforward. What I enjoyed the most was simply to be outdoors, to feel the sun and the wind twenty four hours a day instead of spending my life in front of a computer screen. What I missed the most was human contact, which I had not expected in forehand, since I am generally thought of myself as rather asocial. The next day’s program was decided: beach, beach, and restaurant. Not before 15:00.

We talked a bit of our respective lives after leaving Zurich, of the lockdown. I asked Amandine how she dealt with the academic storm without being caught by the winds of individual competition. She explained that she had basically just stopped putting work as the uttermost priority in her life’s decision. This sounded simple, and a very natural choice in our latin cultures, where the words to talk about work derive from an instrument of torture (tripalium) and a form of intense suffering (labor). But at the same time it wasn’t simple to me. When caught up in an exciting research project, I was the kind of person to swim counter currents untill drained of all my energy, my humanity, my relationships. I was like the majority of scientists, which is why universities can afford to pay us part-time and still expect us to work at weekend. In some ways, I had eventually made a similar choice to Amandine, had manage to take down my working time closer to a fourty-hour week, and to the 80 percent part-time contract I was being paid for. And now here I was, out of the game.

On the third day, we took the car-ferry to Ugjlan and hiked to a secret inlet whose location I am not allowed to reveal on this blog. The weather was stormy, which made for more comfortable hiking. The inlet waters were fresh and blue. At first, it looked like we would be spared by the rain, but in mid-afternoon, foamy waves and thick sea spray suddenly appeared in the distance. A sailboat was caught by surprise, and we could hear its sail bang in the wind hundreds of metres away as the ship tried to turn around. I said I would not like to be on that boat. “Ah, just standard procedure”, Amandine commented.

After the storm, we climbed to one of the highest hills on Ugljan. The skies had been cleared up and the view extended in all directions. The Kornati Islands were again visible to the south. Northwards, the steep mountain ridge of Cres Island emerged from the sea like a Mount Fuji of the Adriatic. Landwards, sideways lightning revealed all topographic details of the Velebit Mountains.

The National Park turned money machine

After three nights in Bibinje, I took again the ferry to Ugljan, but this time with my fully loaded bike. Cycling on Ugljan and the next island of Pašman was quite enjoyable. South of Zadar and at least down to Split, there were blue signs that marked the EuroVelo 8, a long-distance Mediterranean cycling route that runs from Cadiz in southern Spain to Athens, and then on to Izmir and Cyprus. Wherever possible, the signs led to minor roads that often ran along the sea shore. The itinerary was not always ideal, and some signs were missing, but this was quite a level above what I had seen so far in Croatia. I also felt that cars were driving more carefully here, as if there had been some kind of awareness campaign.

There were so many figs on the roadside, that I finally understood that I did not need to stack up, but could just cycle to the next fig tree whenever I felt like it. I became more picky though, plucking only from trees that I could reach from the road without having to park my bike, and then only from trees on the right side of the road. I took a ferry again from the southern end of Pašman and landed in Biograd na Maru, which was bursting with tourism. The Velebit Mountains, that had formed a continuous backdrop on the eastern horizon ever since I had arrived in Croatia, finally vanished, leaving room for a more hilly and somewhat greener coastline. I slept in Srima, where I found a simple campsite in the style of the one in Bibinje.

The next morning, I cycled up towards Krka National Park. The road was very busy with cars bearing plates from all over Europe. I had wished to reach the park earlier but a lazy morning and steep hills did not help. I thought I could always decide to come back again the next day. I finally reached a very large parking place full of cars, a few buses and one bicycle (besides mine). There was a long queue to a little kiosk, where I was surprised to discover that I had to pay to enter the park, and more than a bit: 200 kn (about 27 €). Ar the same time I was also informed that there were “free” buses to drive tourists down the last hundred metres to the falls. I think it was the first time I had to pay to enter a National Park. But what else to expect in a country where tourist money is king? For a while, I thought of just turning back, but curiosity took over, and I lined up in front of the kiosk where everyone else had apparently decided that social distancing was not going to happen here.

The waterfalls in the park were gorgeous. In a way, it was nice to visit Krka in the middle of the day, because the forest and waters provided comforting coolness. In other ways though, I was completely desillusioned by what I saw. It turned out that the main attraction in Krka is to bath in the river, which is of course a very special experience. Yet along the short, one-way walking path through the park, there are fifty or maybe hundred stalls selling anything from figs to pancakes, and two restaurants. As a result, this unique natural site serves, as pretty much all the rest of Dalmatia, the function of a beach. And to get into the water, one has to first go through a silky layer of shiny floating sunscreen.

Before visiting Krka, I thought that national parks were designated spaces for nature conservancy. This was why, I thought, it is typically forbidden to camp, pick up flowers or bring dogs in parks. But Krka felt more like a place where nature was transformed into a money machine. With thousands of tourists every summer day and virtually no trails in the park besides the little wooden boardwalk around the falls, I really wondered where all the money goes.

I bathed in the water or course (though I didn’t put sunscreen those days, one more advantage of wearing long sleeves). Since I thought myself smarter than the other tourists, I decided to use my waterproof backpack to fetch my camera closer to the falls. I carefully packed all my clothes in the pack, and dived in. There were only two items I really needed to care for and I managed to forget half of them. My backpack also has little side pockets, which are absolutely not waterproof since they are just nets. By the time I realized my phone was in one of them, the screen was off, the casing really hot, and the led blinking in a random, alarming way.

I walked back up to the park entrance, where I tried to dry my phone and hoped it would somehow turn on, but nothing happened. I blamed myself for having been so negligent, which added up to my negative feelings about the park. Krka was the climax of the ugly tourism industry of Croatia. A few days earlier, I still had tried to argue with Loran that there was some good about tourism, that tourism was important to international relations and global peace. Loran thought I was a traveller, not a tourist. I was not sure to make a difference. But for most people I met in Croatia, I was clearly just a tourist, and not a very profitable one. Why would I not carry one more China-made Tiktok t-shirt in my bags to start with, come on just one t-shirt?

When I cycled out of the park, my hopes that humanity would someday get out of the current ecological and climatic crisis had taken a serious blow. So had my last motivation bits to continue being a scientist. I will write more about it in the next post, but for the moment I am still trying to absorb the shock. Meanwhile, I cycled back to Šibenik, where I quickly visited the city centre and obtained useful paper maps at the tourist information centre. I did not feel like making much distance, so I spent the night in Brodarica, which felt like the symmetric town to Srima on the other side of the Šibenik bay. There were the same repeating landscape of seaside bars and restaurants, the same doubtful ATM machines dotting the seafront, and almost the same little affordable campsite.

More narrow streets in limestone cities

The next morning, I made good distance and reached Trogir, another Adriatic island-town with more than two millennia of urban history. Jewel of the Venetian Republic, the entire town centre is inscribed on the UNESCO list of World Heritage Sites as one of the best preserved medieval complexes in Europe. I had planned to cycle to Split, but was so impressed by the labyrinth of narrow streets and the used limestone pavements, that I decided to spend the night here. I cycled to the nearest campsite, which had almost thrice the price of the previous night’s, had no explanations on how to use a toilet brush, but where I could pitch my tent right next to the water. In the evening, I climbed up the narrow stairs to the top of the delicate bell tower of Crkva sv. Lovre (St. Lawrence Church) to see the sun set over the red tiled roofs of the city.

The next day, I cycled the last 25 km to Split. According to Wikipedia, Split has the best preserved Roman palace in the world. Preserved is a poor description of how the city looks like though. The city centre of Split looks incredible. The Roman palace forms the first layer of a complex architectural patchwork of all epochs of the last two millennia, like a wall full of graffiti overprinted one atop another. The one element that is persistent through this labyrinth of right-angled streets and spontaneous arcades is the smooth yellow limestone, ubiquitous construction material of all coastal Dalmatian cities.

Split was the largest city I visited since Ljubljana and I thought it could be a good place to buy a new phone if I had to. In normal times, when buying a new phone, or a new computer or camera, I would spend long time reading online reviews and delay the decision for a couple of weeks or months, until I am really very sure about which model I want and need. And then of course be unsatisfied with it. In Split, I managed to reduce this time to a weekend. Meanwhile, I placed my phone in a zip-locked plastic bag with the rest of my risoni. After two days I could see that the pasta had absorbed a bit of water and that there were fewer droplets inside the front camera, but my phone still refused to power on.

So I headed to a small phone store I had previously spotted and bought a shiny new phone. Of course I was directly unsatisfied with it. The device was technically really good. It was smaller and lighter than the one I had bathed in Krka River, and the screen had a large brightness range, which would allow for reading maps in full daylight, or comfortably using the phone in my tent. But the system came bloated with unnecessary software. I was planning to replace the original Xiaomi software with Lineage OS (an open-source Android system) but this turned out to be very complicated. One needed to create a Xiaomi account, apply for unlocking the device and let them track you for a few weeks, and the whole thing required a Windows computer, which I didn’t have. So eventually I had little choice but to accept continuing my journey with one tech giant from each of both of the Worlds economic superpowers competing for my attention in my pocket. During the few previous days, I had embarrassingly realized how badly I depended on my phone. Of course I could do without it, unlike my tent, quilt and bike which were, at least in colder weather, indispensable. But I used my phone to contact with friends, to write my blog, to book accomodation, to check border status, and as a map.

Tech talk apart, the whole story made me really grumpy. I grew angry at myself for having been so negligent to bring my phone into the water. I had lost a lot of money, including three hostel nights in Split between which I enjoyed little of the city. Eventually I decided to stay a fourth night in Split, so that I could update my blog and enjoy a bit of the city, but it didn’t help. Instead, I blamed myself some more for, in addition to all the rest, struggling to write the current post, and being so socially incompetent, incapable to make new friends in a city where I felt like one more tourist in the masses, an object to draw money from, but not viruses. I still hated 2020.

The route (4 days, 226 km)

Photos

2 Comments

  1. Your cousin Thomas

    Hello Julien, hopefully I can improve your mood saying that your adventures make me smile (even the bad ones) and I really enjoy reading your blog thanks to the funny way you tell your stories. Bon voyage !

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