The clack of toe cleats against hard floor was unmistakeable. I glanced up from my guidebook, which I’d been perusing in the vain hope it would help me decide where to go next, to see the source of the noise – a guy dressed in t-shirt and cycling shorts, carrying two Ortlieb pannier bags, and wearing a cycle helmet.
“Did you cycle here?” I asked. A rather obvious question, perhaps, but a girl has to start a conversation somewhere.
Indeed he had. As the guy – an American called Scott – worked through his post-ride stretches, he told me about his trip. Setting off from Zadar, in Croatia, he was heading down the coast to Montenegro, for a week long swimming camp – 2km of open water swimming every day – after which he would get back in the saddle and cycle back up the coast again.
I could feel my muscles starting to ache just listening to him. All that effort – and he called it a holiday?
My own holiday, on the other hand, was far less demanding. I was in Croatia for two weeks; with no fixed plans except the dates I would fly in and fly home again, the time in-between was mine to do with as I pleased.
This was a new experience for me. I usually have, if not quite a fixed agenda, then certainly a pretty solid plan whenever I go away. But this time I genuinely had no idea where I wanted to go or what I wanted to do until I got there.
While I’d entertained the idea that I might do something active – some cycling maybe, or some hiking – once I got there I quickly realised I just wanted to be lazy. I wanted to spend as much time as possible doing as little as possible. So, over the two weeks I got up when I wanted, went where I wanted and did what I wanted: I read, swam, sunbathed, meandered, explored, read a bit more, ate, drank, took photos, got bitten by mosquitoes, relaxed and read a bit more…
I could’ve cycled, if I’d wanted to. Almost everywhere I went had bikes to rent. I could’ve rented a bike to cycle from the town of Skradin to the Krka Falls, from Vis Town around the bay, or through the Marjan peninsula near Split. In Šibenik, I could’ve used one of the town’s city bikes to cycle from the old town out to the town beach.
But I didn’t. The closest I got to actually getting on a bike was in Komiža, on the island of Vis. This is the furthest inhabited island from the mainland of Croatia, and one of the most unspoilt. I’d heard there were some beautiful, secluded bays away from the town main towns; bays that sounded perfect for swimming and lazing in the sunshine.
I just needed to get to them. Without a driving licence, my only option was to rent a bike.
I thought about it. I really did. But there was the small matter or the hill directly behind the town, up which the main road – the only road, in fact – snaked steeply upwards in a series of hairpin bends.
While this would undoubtedly make for some spectacular views on the way down, I didn’t fancy cycling up it. All that effort, not to mention the fact that I’d be on the wrong right-hand side of the road? No thank you.
But, even though I didn’t actually get on a bike myself, I still had my cycling antennae firmly switched on for the duration of my holiday. So I noticed, for example, the groups of Lycra-clad cyclists who did make it up that big scary hill. I also noticed the cycle-tourers, pedalling along the coastal highway with their laden panniers and padded shorts.
I also noticed how all of those kitted out in proper cycling gear – the Lycra and the helmets – all seemed to be tourists. I’m not saying there aren’t any proper cyclists in Croatia. I just didn’t see any.
The Croatians I did see on bikes – and there were quite a few – seemed to be using them as a means of getting around. Indeed, on the traffic-free island of Zlarin, they were pretty much the only way to get around. Many of these bikes, both on Zlarin and elsewhere, were ancient, rusted, squeaking things that had probably never seen the inside of a bike shop since the day they were bought.
The people riding them weren’t in a hurry to get anywhere; they just pootled along, perhaps with a bag of shopping hanging from the handlebars, sometimes on the road, sometimes off it. Though I saw no evidence of any cycling infrastructure, I also saw no signs of conflict between cyclists, drivers and pedestrians. It’s telling that I didn’t see any of these pootlers wearing helmets.
It all seemed very relaxed. Idyllic, even.
It’s perfectly possible that two weeks of sunshine and swimming might have coloured my judgement somewhat, and perhaps cycling in Croatia isn’t as wonderful as it seems. Nonetheless, next time I’m in Croatia I’d like to find out for myself.
If I do, though, I won’t be doing anything anywhere near as strenuous as the aforementioned Scott’s mammoth trek. But a gentle pootle along the coast, looking out onto that beautiful emerald sea, sounds pretty much perfect.