The hot sun dried the air over the Velo Grabje valley, in the middle of the hills of the Dalmatian island of Hvar, and shrunk the last green vines into the stumps of pale wires. Only lavender, their delicate purple flower, thrived. And Barba Borto, one of the five inhabitants of Velo Grabje, could not wait any longer.
The harvest of his vineyards was not enough to support his family for the third season. Borto knew he had only two options. Either emigrate to the mainland and lose his ancestral home and land or break millennia of cultivation traditions and secure livelihood for himself and future generations. Borto's decision brought his family and the entire island to prominence.
Borto stayed and founded a new lavender tradition.
Yet, decades have passed since then, and much has changed.
As soon as my adventure partner Barbora and I heard this story, we got an irresistible urge to explore this rough corner of the world. Maybe it was curiosity that attracted us. Is it even possible to experience a captivating adventure in a dull, touristy landscape?
The idea of experiencing a bicycle adventure has been bothering me for some time. When I was a young girl—visiting the Croatian coast with my parents during the summer holidays, I dreamed of an adventure like this. Bike trip on remote trails, rippling dangerously high above the surface of the stormy sea.
But really, Croatia? Where is the adventure here?
In my imagination, I found the Mediterranean Croatian landscape boring. Dull beaches and tourists drinking over-sweetened sangria off the shelves of busy towns. Nothing with the flavor of a challenge. But Borto's story was too tempting for me to reject this country.
At least not so fast.
At first, I was afraid of returning to a familiar place. What if I lose precious time that I could spend exploring a new country? If I've learned anything while traveling in the saddle, it's better to travel well than to be well-traveled. I returned to this country with "slow eyes."
I was interested in what Croatia is like outside the lush beaches. What to see for a shot of typical tourist catalogs. The goal was to experience an adventure in a country where excitement was not expected.
I couldn't sleep in the middle of a hot, dry night. The moon's light penetrated the uncovered windshield of our van and woke me shortly after three in the morning. Barbora's mat was empty. I half-opened the door and saw the outline of her white bicycle in the moonlight. Under normal circumstances, I would have plunged back into a sleepy night.
Still, the excitement of what awaited us drove me out.
Images from an interrupted dream crept into my mind. But as soon as my bike wheels spun on the gravel road, a wakeful breeze scattered them back into the darkness. And I was able to focus on what was needed.
We watched out for an inconspicuous turn to the coastal road from Jelša to the ancient settlement of Humac—which is not marked on the map yet. Swallowed by the darkness of twilight, we were trying to direct the yellow beams from our headlights to see a few meters in front of us. Meanwhile, the three-quarters full moon revealed new distant views.
To hit the road before sunrise is the only way to escape the burning rays. But there is another benefit we gain from driving in the dark.
Limited vision keeps us truly focused. Our senses captivated only the crackling sound of abraded stones under the wheels and our accelerating breath—disappearing in the silence of the coming dawn.
The combination of limited vision and the noise of the sea coming from the unknown gave us a warm feeling while the sun was still hiding behind the horizon.
We copied the coast and climbed higher with each turn as the mainland rose to endless heights. With increasing altitude, the hours also passed. The temperatures rose relentlessly. As soon as the sun slipped from behind the horizon, everything was suddenly different.
Within a few minutes, the sky filled with saturation, and the temperature reached an estimated 30 °C. When we realized this, the heat had spread across our hot backs, washed away the sticky road dust. The blistering heat floated in the air. The tireless rays of the sun cracked our lips harder and harder.
It was the refreshment we longed for.
We tried to find some shelter quickly but only succeeded when we finally arrived at the ancient settlement of Humac. It was on the plateau of the ruthless mountain range that had been watching us from the beginning. The stone walls of the houses—tightly planted in the narrow streets, prevented the sun from penetrating the bottom. The shiny white stones reflected the sun's rays back to the sea.
Here we found the coveted cold.
We could appreciate the vast rocky landscape surrounding us in the shadow of the dilapidated buildings. We observed the stone walls, whose stories no one had listened to for a long time. Despite the emptiness, the silent past screamed at us, random wanderers. It erupted from the exposed walls to the surface. Released the rocks strewn with hammer blows that the forgotten inhabitants had left.
Despite the emptiness, we caught sight of an unexpected movement.
On ancient stone fortifications, among the old olive trees and wild vineyards—three figures danced in the rhythm of the gentle breeze. Mother with her two daughters. They eagerly hunted for the same rays of sunshine we had blamed for exhaustion.
Their unforgettable and immediate joy from the sun was spilling over to us. The fatigue and rival thoughts suddenly disappeared from our minds. We marveled at the wonder of everything we perceived. This moment embodied the true meaning of awe.
Thick stone walls are not the only elements that protect residents from the extreme elements. The locals have developed something Barbora, and I call a "positive, sunny mood." The sun fills these people with a typical Mediterranean love for life. Their joy in dancing forced us to move our bodies in a similar rhythm for a moment.
We lingered for a while before we longed again for another unexpected moment.
The next day, when we had planned to cross the island highlands towards the opposite side of the coast, the intrusive warm air settled on us in the small mountain village of Selca. It sneaked up the hills with us. Ever since we climbed below the peak, we have kept in the notch of the steep slopes. It is not uncommon to move on extreme inclines in these parts.
It is clear that the success of this island was distilled from sweat. Farmers had been transforming precipitous hillsides into terraced gardens by building dry stone walls for millennia.
How difficult was for Borto to grow up in the endless struggle for existence? How brave was his decision to stay in such a ruthless country?
No one to answer.
The country was apparently empty, filled with ancient silence. Something urged us to stop. We were forced to listen. As if the only life here came from the sound of crackling wild boulders. It passed by us like a whiff of lavender perfume.
We could see for many miles. Just below the peak of St. Nicola, the highest point of the island of Hvar, we got off the saddle. We admired how the steep foothills disappeared below sea level, turning into a flat seascape.
From here, the distance between heaven and earth collapsed. We caught glimpses of divine infinity. We swam through this space.
We marveled at the landscape interwoven with a stone web. We could smell the honeyed scent of lavender. Hear the deafening sound of the cicadas, which alternated with the silence—hovering in a haze of the burning earth. It is unbelievable that this silence, in which we could only hear our accelerated breaths, turns to the screeching of the wind during the winter months—leaving behind a transformed, rugged beauty.
Our low expectations of this country almost robbed us of its sudden beauty.
The day was almost over. The setting sun drew an intense saturation from all it touched. Only the low lavender bushes offered stingy colors in the monotonous landscape carved in stone. A dense web of walls rushed to the edge of the sea. A narrow walkway squeezed through the thick canopy of the pine forest. We had no idea what to expect from this path ahead of us.
Yet, it put a smile on our faces.
We jumped on the seats and set off on the longed-for downhill.
Images/Words by Tatiana Kondelova & Barbora Kolencikova